Who’s really in charge?

Updated: 2013-02-07T03:52:31Z


The Kansas City Star

Nothing in politics is more amusing than watching state lawmakers complain about interference from Washington.

For decades, state officials have moaned about federal mandates — rules for educating the disabled, for example, or laws for cleaner water, or federal requirements for health care. Perhaps you’ve heard that Republicans in Missouri are discussing a law to criminalize enforcement of new federal gun regulations in the state.

Our job today isn’t to examine the legality of that proposal — the interplay between state and federal laws, from guns to marijuana, is actually pretty complex. The wisdom of state or federal gun legislation is a topic for another time.

But let’s agree on this: It’s rich that state lawmakers who grouse about Washington’s interference routinely interfere with local city councils, county commissions and school boards.

Take Kansas City, for example. State law prohibits its council from regulating guns. Ditto for enacting new tobacco taxes. Missouri law supersedes all local adult-entertainment ordinances, the very definition of one-size-fits-all legislation. Kansas City must ask state permission to raise its earnings tax — and now, thanks to state law, it must ask voters to renew that levy every five years.

Heck, the state controls Kansas City’s Police Department.

In Kansas, parents who might want to pay higher taxes for local schools can’t. Other state-imposed rules on special education and teacher training are often left underfunded, prompting lawsuits. When the state changed the way you register your car, local governments had to pick up some of the cost.

Kansas City, Kan., would like to impose an earnings tax. It needs state permission. States say what property can and can’t be taxed locally.

Think of the message state legislators send: Washington is stupid, and local officials aren’t very bright either.

They find themselves, on the other hand, pretty dang brilliant.

State legislatures are, at least, actually quite important. What happens this year in Jefferson City and Topeka will ultimately affect your life far more than almost anything that takes place in Washington or at City Hall.

At the same time, state legislators are unique: They aren’t full-time politicians like many city council members or federal officeholders. And part-time politics can occasionally attract candidates near the edges of, um, mainstream thought.

State lawmakers are quite fond of quoting the 10th Amendment, which says powers not given to the federal government are reserved for the states. Fair enough.

But they usually leave out the second part of that amendment, which says those powers also belong to the people. You know, the people who elect city councils, schools boards and county commissions. Not just state legislatures.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to

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